Born on June 14, 1811 in Litchfield, Connecticut, Harriet Elizabeth Beecher was the daughter of Presbyterian minister Lyman Beecher and his first wife, Roxanne Foote. A strong abolitionist, Lyman reinforced these beliefs in his children.
The seventh of 13 children born to Lyman, Harriet was four when her mother died of tuberculosis. Lyman later remarried and though Harriet had a good relationship with her stepmother, the bond she developed with her oldest sister, Catherine, who had taken over the role as her mother, was much stronger. Both a teacher and author, Catherine played an important role in helping to shape Harriet’s social views.
Following her mother’s death, Harriet was enrolled in Ma’am Kilbourn’s School, where she spent five years, then studied at Litchfield Academy. At Litchfield, Harriet won an award (and her father’s praise) for an essay in which she asked the question, “Can the immortality of the soul be proved by the light of nature?”
When Harriet left Litchfield, she enrolled in Hartford Female Seminary; a girls’ school her sister, Catherine, founded. The curriculum Catherine offered was in the form of a traditional classical course normally reserved for young men. Following completion of her studies, Harriet began to teach at the school. In 1832 when she was 21, Harriet and Catherine moved with their father to Cincinnati, Ohio where Lyman Beecher had been appointed the president of Lane Theological Seminary.
Growing up in Connecticut, Harriet had little exposure to the situation of slavery. In 1833, she left Cincinnati for a period of time due to a cholera epidemic and traveled across the river to Kentucky, then a slave state. Here she resided with the Marshall Key family and saw slavery first hand as she witnessed a slave auction and talked with escaped slaves. Questions now began to fill her mind about this “peculiar institution.”
Following her association with anti-slavery activists such as Salmon Chase, Harriet joined a number of like-minded friends in a group named the Semi-Colon Club and here met seminary professor Calvin Ellis Stowe. She and Calvin later fell in love and the couple was married on January 6, 1836. Harriet described her husband as, “rich in Greek and Hebrew, Latin and Arabic, and alas, rich in nothing else.”
The Stowes were strong abolitionists who also shared an interest in literature and the Underground Railroad. When Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, this prompted a great deal of distress throughout the free black communities of the North, along with the abolitionists in the area.
Harriet and Calvin became the parents of seven children. During the summer of 1849, they lost their 18-month-old, Samuel Charles Stowe, to cholera. Harriet was later able to incorporate the crushing sorrow she experienced with the loss of Samuel into her writing as she illustrated the pain enslaved mothers likely felt as their children were taken from them and sold.
In 1850, the family moved to Brunswick, Maine when Professor Stowe returned to his alma mater, Bowdoin College to join the faculty. They made their home here until 1853.
In 1851, Gamaliel Bailey, publisher of The National Era, contacted Stowe about writing a story which would help to “paint a word picture of slavery.” Prior to creating her story, Harriet contacted Frederick Douglass and asked him to put her in touch with as many former slaves as possible, in an effort to ensure the accuracy of her work. Harriet originally thought her story would be three or four installments in length; however, it eventually numbered 40. For her work, she earned $400.
On March 20, 1852, Harriet’s work was published in a 2-volume set, with 5,000 copies originally released under the title, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Within a year’s time, the book sold 300,000 copies. By December of 1853, sales began to wane some, so a less expensive edition of the book was released to inspired additional sales, each priced at 37.5¢.
The book Uncle Tom's Cabin tells the story of a kind slave whose name is Tom. He is sold a number of times and eventually ends up on a plantation owned by Simon Legree. An evil man who seems to delight in beating his slaves, Legree becomes even angrier as he witnesses the kindness Tom extends to his fellow slaves. When two women slaves later escaped, Simon tries to force Tom to tell him where they went. Tom refused to do so and was eventually beaten to death by Legree.
Stowe’s work quickly captured the nation’s attention by the way it illustrated the impact slavery had on families and children. She gave a human face to slavery and addressed the oppression faced by the Negro when she asked, “Who so low, who so poor, who so despised as the American slave?”
Embraced by many in the North, Uncle Tom’s Cabin aroused a great deal of hostility in the South, resulting in Stowe’s name being hated throughout the region. It served to educate people about the horrors of slavery and also played a role in helping Abraham Lincoln win the presidency. Though not the cause of the Civil War; the story is said to have definitely had an impact. Theatrical performances were soon the order of the day, lending iconic status to Stowe’s characters, Tom, Eva and Topsy. In Boston alone, 300 babies were named “Eva” in 1853.
Due to a number of people in the South stating Stowe’s story was totally inaccurate, Harriet then published The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In this book she documented the case histories she used in her original novel. Dred: a Tale from the Swamp, followed in its wake, an even more forceful anti-slavery novel than her first.
Following the outbreak of the Civil War, Stowe visited Washington, D.C. where she met with President Abraham Lincoln. Though not documented as fact, it is reported one of Stowe’s sons stated that when Lincoln met his mother, the president’s opening remark was, “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”
A best-seller in the United States, Britain, Europe and Asia, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was translated into more than 60 languages and catapulted its author to the rank of an international celebrity. In all, Harriet would write more than 30 novels, essays and textbooks.
In 1853, Uncle Tom’s Cabin resulted in a trip to Europe for its author, due to a petition signed by half a million Scottish, Irish and English women. Stowe later captured the events of her trip in the story, Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands. Returning to Europe in 1856, Harriet met Queen Victoria, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot and the widow of poet Lord Byron.
Also in 1853, Calvin left Bowdoin and became a professor of theology at Andover Theological Seminary in Andover, Massachusetts. He retired in 1864 and moved his family to Hartford, Connecticut. Here, Harriet was able to have her dream home on Nook Farm, which she named Oakholm. She remained here until 1870 among a neighborhood of family and friends; later moving due to the high cost of maintaining the dwelling, and the number of encroaching factories in the area. In 1873, she moved to Forest Street where she resided in a Victorian Gothic style cottage for the next 23 years.
In 1869, Stowe busied herself campaigning for the expansion of married women's rights. She argued: “The position of a married woman . . . is, in many respects, precisely similar to that of the Negro slave. She can make no contract and hold no property; whatever she inherits or earns becomes at that moment the property of her husband . . . Though he acquired a fortune through her, or though she earn a fortune through her talents, he is the sole master of it, and she cannot draw a penny . . . In the English common law, a married woman is nothing at all. She passes out of legal existence.”
Though well known among the folks of New England, Stowe also spent a good bit of time near Jacksonville, Florida. Following the Civil War, Calvin and Harriett purchased a home in Mandarin on the St. John’s River. Here she spent many winters with her family and helped to promote Florida as a vacation destination. Her book Palmetto Leaves was written about both the people and area of northern Florida and warmly embraced by local Floridians.
There were a number of reasons the Stowes chose to buy a home in Florida. If racial equality was to become a true reality in the United States, legislation was just part of the story; education was also necessary. Harriet’s brother, Charles Beecher, had opened a school in Florida to teach emancipated Negroes and he asked Calvin and Harriet to come help him. Add to that the fact the railroads had expanded into Florida and played an important role in shipping the state’s citrus crops to northern markets; thus the Stowes invested in a citrus orchard. The couple also purchased at cotton plantation in Florida, which was managed by their son, Frederick, and worked by newly-freed slaves. In 1871, Frederick was lost at sea, forcing Harriet to mourn the loss of another son.
Finding the mild winters to be a wonderful respite from the harsh ones common in Hartford, Harriet and Calvin also welcomed the savings they enjoyed from the high costs of winter fuel. Harriet was known to compare the climate of Florida to that of Italy. The family continued to winter in Mandarin for 15 years until Calvin’s health deteriorated to the point where long travel was prohibitive.
When Harriet celebrated her 70th birthday in 1881, the event became a matter of national celebration, and also her swan song. After that, she seldom appeared in public. Calvin Stowe died in 1886 and shortly thereafter, Harriet’s health began to rapidly deteriorate. Bedridden for a number of years, it was reported by the Washington Post in 1888 that Harriet had begun to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin all over again, likely due to dementia.
Harriett Beecher Stowe was 85 when she died on July 1, 1896 in Hartford, Connecticut. She was buried in Andover, Massachusetts at Phillips Academy. Engraved on her headstone is the epitaph, “Her Children Rise up and Call Her Blessed.”
A number of landmarks throughout the eastern United States are dedicated to the memory the renowned author; probably the most famous being the Harriet Beecher Stowe House located in Brunswick, Maine where she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In 20001, Bowdoin College bought and restored the home. A second Harriet Beecher Stowe House is located in Hartford, Connecticut. This house was Harriet’s home the final years of her life and is now a museum and research library. It stands next door to the home of another well-known American author, Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain.
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"If you see my name coming out everywhere - you may be sure of one thing, that I do it for the pay." Harriet Beecher Stowe